During Advent we get quite a bit of John the Baptist. He really is an Advent rather than a Christmas character, living rough, strange eating habits, shouting at people, telling them not what they want to hear but that they need to change. A man of faith and of doubt. Saying exactly what he thought without fear or favour. And finally, getting his head chopped off. He is not the sort of saint you’d want to invite to Christmas lunch.
Yet John the Baptist will appear at Midnight Mass as those wonderful words from John’s gospel are read out. You’ll remember how it starts: ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. It carries on: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’. These are eternal transcendent themes, circling around the universe.
And then suddenly, the focus narrows down like Google earth to a point in the Judean wilderness ‘there was a man sent from God whose name was John’. John the Baptist earths the narrative. The rough, smelly, hairy man of the desert who gave the original and ultimate testimony to the identity of the eternal word in human form.
But by time we read today’s gospel, John had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas. He sat in his dungeon, alone, facing death, going through deep darkness.
The infant who had leapt in his mothers womb at Jesus’ approach. The voice in the wilderness, the man who baptised Jesus, who proclaimed him the lamb of God. This same man now sent a question ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ John the herald, sounding an uncertain note.
Jesus’s response is not to be hurt or to condemn such a question. Instead he sends evidence of the signs of the kingdom for which John had so longed. Jesus sends back a testimony to John, who had testified to him; ‘the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the Good News is proclaimed to the poor’.
His love and admiration for John are not shaken. To those standing around he declares: ‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John.’
We may approach Christmas this year with some aspects of uncertainty, fear, loss, and doubt. But like John, we don’t have to pretend, we can be real. Doubts are not sins, and are part of every Christian’s experience. Doubt is part of faith.
Jesus himself gives us the evidence of the signs of the kingdom as he gave to John; his love for us in the incarnation, his saving death and resurrection; his presence in the sacraments; his promise of the spirit to help and to guide us through life. The moments of revelation and healing and joy that come to us mysteriously, randomly.
So this Christmas, let us come to the crib, limping, hoping, doubting maybe, but whatever our mood or our feelings, forever loved and accepted.
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt
Fighting and fears within without
O Lamb of God, I come, I come